Chicago-based Potbelly, which includes Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz as its biggest investor, comes to the UK this month to discover whether UK customers have the stomach for a premium toasted sandwich chain.

Can Potbelly do for sandwiches what Shake Shack and Five Guys did for burgers in the UK? That’s the question that Akbar Sheikh, director of Sheikh Holdings, intends to answer in the affirmative when the first European site of the Chicago-based sandwich chain opens in London this year.

Sheikh, whose company has agreed a master franchise deal to launch Potbelly over here, is confident the brand can mimic the success of the US burger chains by providing UK customers with a more premium offer than they have been used to. In the case of the burger brands it was an alternative to McDonald’s and Burger King, with Potbelly looking to do the same against the likes of Subway. “We see Potbelly as one of those quirkier brands, like Shake Shack,” he says. “People in he UK may not have heard of it, but it has a serious presence in the US.”

It’s a useful comparison given the location of the first Potbelly site in Europe, at London’s Westfield Stratford City, where it opens later this month just two doors down from the second UK Shake Shack. Sheikh believes the brands will help promote each other and create an enclave of premium, fast-casual US imports. All it needs is for a Chipotle to rock up across the street and the triumvirate will be complete.

The halo effect of having Shake Shack as a neighbour can’t be underestimated, but whether Potbelly has enough else about it to capture the imagination of UK customers remains to be seen. The brand will open with less hype and fanfare than its burger rival and, although it has 400 sites in the US, is less well known on these shores than the Danny Meyer fronted company.

Yet the groundswell towards heartier, hot lunchtime snacks – as evidenced by the rise of the burrito movement – and the re-adoption of US brands over here gives Potbelly a fighting chance. Moreover, the sandwich sector – dominated by the likes of Pret A Manger, Eat and Subway – is in need of a bit of spark. Is Potbelly the brand to ignite it?

“The sandwich market is quite stable. It has some very large operators, but they don’t bring anything different,” says Sheikh. “The feedback we’ve had is people are fed up with the standard things on the high street and a looking for something different. If you look at the players currently in the market, they are all low end or medium to low end. Potbelly, however, is more of a premium brand.

“The burrito has brought something different to the market and people are paying more for something more filling and hearty. We see the market going more towards hot food – Pret is focusing more on hot alternatives, for example – and Potbelly sandwiches are all hot toasted.”

The Potbelly model will be a familiar one to anyone who has eaten in a Subway. The chain’s main selling point is its hot toasted sub-style sandwiches, of which it sells about 20 different options. These include BBQ pulled pork; turkey, bacon and cheddar; the A Wreck – salami, roast beef, turkey, ham and Swiss cheese; and a meatball option. There’s even a PB & J (peanut butter and jelly) option, with prices ranging from $6.45 to $7.45.

As with Subway, customers can choose from a set menu but are able to customise their sandwich, but this is where Sheikh hopes the comparisons with the sandwich giant end. “We are more of a premium fast-casual brand than a sandwich chain. We spend a lot of money on the fit out and staff training. In other sandwich chains it’s more grab and go. Hopefully people will see us as something very different.”

The size of the restaurants also mark it out. In the US, sites range from 500sq ft to 4,000sq ft, with the brand also occupying kiosks and food courts, but in the UK the “sweet spot” is around 2,000sq ft. Stratford will be 1,870sq ft and have 90 covers – 70 inside and 20 on the outside terrace. The restaurant environment is another USP, with Potbelly having live music during its busy lunchtime periods. “It’s all about atmosphere,” adds Sheikh.

In terms of the food, fans of the Chicago chain can expect much of the same over here, with Sheikh promising that the menu will be largely the same. As well as sandwiches it will sell soup and chilli as well as cookies and milkshakes with the selection largely unchanged. Recipes have had to be tweaked, such as changing the bread so that it contains fewer preservatives and additives than in the States, and the company will introduce more UK-friendly options – a chicken tikka sandwich will go on the Statford menu in the next few months – but it remains familiar in both offer and price.

“We’ve not moved away from the core menu. Ultimately Potbelly has a lot of fans. We didn’t want to change to the extent that people feel that they are getting something different. There has to be consistency across US, UK, and Middle East [where Potbelly also has franchises].”

Expansion plans are conservative, with the company looking to open 10 in London in the next five years. Initial targets will be the financial districts, where lunchtime trade is high, as well as transport hubs. As all the meat comes in pre-cooked there is no need for extraction, meaning that it can take A1 sites.

After that, Potbelly will expand its horizons and look outside of the capital, although it has no intention to trying to claim Subway’s crown. “There will not be a Potbelly on every single high street in the UK,” he says.

Potbelly a potted history

Named after the potbelly stove rather than the pig, the sandwich chain started life in Chicago in 1977 as an antique store with its own stove. Branching out into sandwiches to serve to its customers its owners soon realised that there was a greater consumer appetite for toasties than trinkets, and began rolling the concept out across the city. There are around 400 Potbelly sites in the US, predominantly in Chicago and New York as well as in the Middle East and the company, led by CEO Aylwin Lewis, plans to open around 50 new sites each year. Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz is the company’s biggest investor.